Large school could have significant impact on area schooling options
GENEVA / LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND – The early October news seemed to come out of nowhere, that the Lake Geneva region would have yet another new international school, but this time a relatively large one that has managed to find space in the crowded and tight real estate corridor between Geneva and Lausanne.
The news was confirmed Wednesday during a press conference on the new school’s building site, with the announcement that Gems World Academy Etoy last week received a permit to open from canton Vaud. The school plans to welcome some 400 students in September 2013, from ages 3 to 14, growing to 1,000 during its first phase and 1,500 in a second construction phase, for which permission is still being sought.
The school is owned by Gems, a privately-held Dubai company started by the Varkey family. The firm has some 110,000 students in more than 100 schools (plus partner schools) around the world, ranging from relatively inexpensive local schools to high-end private international schools in 10 countries.
Gems has schools in Britain, but Etoy will be home to its first school in continental Europe. Others are planned in Europe, for example in Poland. The rapidly expanding company is also opening 10 new schools in the United Arab Emirates this year alone, with a school planned in Kenya and others to follow in Uganda and Ghana within three years.
Need for schools between Lausanne and Geneva
In the past five years several new schools or new campuses for existing private schools have been created in the stretch between Geneva and Lausanne, notably in Morges, Rolle and Nyon, where growth from international companies has been strong. The population in the region has exploded, as shown by the number of train passengers, which has doubled in 10 years and is expected to double again by 2030, reflecting overall population growth.
Most of the new schools and campuses cater to under 100 students. The International School of Geneva campus at Founex, La Chataigneraie, is an exception, with an enlarged primary school of more than 250 students that opened in September 2011.
Catering to the international population between Geneva and Lausanne
School waiting lists in the region have eased, but matching spaces to students’ needs, especially for schooling in English, remains problematic for some families, who can’t always get more than one child into the same school.
GWA Etoy is in the industrial zone of Etoy, a five minute drive from the Aubonne autoroute exit and 200 metres from the CFF train stop. A representative for the architects CCHE, Marco Cennini, said at a press conference Wednesday 31 October, that his firm has been approached in recent years by a number of schools wanting to set up shop in the area, but that “for a school to have critical mass it has to have 1,500 or so students, and that means land. In this area, it’s almost impossible to find that.”
Its primary public will be the international population, including Swiss families looking for an international education, rather than the typically more transient expatriate group, says Jay Varkey, a member of the Gems board, responsible for the company’s business development. Varkey, whose grandfather started the first Gems school in Dubai in 1958, insists that the company’s schools must have strong local community ties as well as be outward looking and international.
Typically for international schools, languages will be a high priority and while English will be the main language of instruction, all students must be fluent in at least two languages by year 12, near the end of their schooling. Mandarin will be among the languages taught.
Private schools in the region, and the new GWA Etoy is no exception, have been quick to fill a gap left by the local school system, in providing care before and after school, as well as at lunchtime, to help working parents.
New school’s arrival creating some nervousness
Given the recent expansion and investment of other schools in the area, it’s perhaps not surprising that some of the smaller schools have held crisis meetings in recent days, to assess the role the new school will play in attracting teachers and students. A local journalist at the press conference asked if the region really has such a demand for schooling in English, or if, thanks to the high Swiss franc, the move of foreign companies into the area has died down and fewer international families are moving in.
Mel Curtis, responsible for curriculum for Gems schools in Europe, says the school undertook market research that shows the need is very real.
“Competition is not a bad thing for schools,” Jay Varkey added, talking to GenevaLunch.
The school’s plans are nothing short of extraordinarily ambitious.
The English-language school aims to grow to 1,500 students in a relatively short time. Strong support from the Vaud Economic Development office and the commune of Etoy to help speed up planning and permissions, despite stringent requirements for transport, for example, appear to be helping the school move quickly to realize its plans.
The main building is well underway, and Wednesday’s press conference took place amid hammering and drilling.
Etoy’s mayor Michel Roulet says the village has seen rapid growth of its commercial centre but is now moving to slow this down and encourage a stronger service sector. The land that has been freed up with an initial 30-year-lease for the school is a thin slice of real estate that, according to the school’s architects, has required creative planning.
The parents of 1,500 students, arriving twice a day, would create road havoc in the area and around the Aubonne autoroute exit, so approval for the second stage must include a means of assuring that half of the students who will eventually attend the school will arrive by public or group transport. Etoy’s Roulet insists on this point, noting that the new shops in the area have not set a good example and local roads are already clogged. The school, he says, will have to do better.
Initial construction includes a main building and sports area; in a second phase the school will add another building and a large multi-sports centre, planned for 2014.
Both the commune and the school are pushing to develop strong community-school ties, starting with plans to provide not just students but parents, other schools, and the community at large with access to the sports facilities. Plans are to eventually include, for example, a covered eight-lane 252-metre swimming pool, with far greater access in terms of hours than most indoor pools in Vaud.
The facilities planned include a radio station, TV and camera studio and a music studio, all part of a larger technology-rich campus that will see wifi available throughout the school.
Number of new jobs not finalized, but hiring for 2013
The school will be hiring teaching and non-teaching staff, but precise numbers and timing will depend on enrollment, which opens the first week of November, through Gem’s Lausanne office.
Fees will be “competitive” with other international schools in the area, but Gems has not yet finalized what parents will pay, says the new principal, Audrey Peverelli.
Vaud has about 50 private schools, not all of which offer an international education, and fees range from CHF7,000 to CHF26,000 at most of these, depending on age and the programmes offered, canton Vaud figures show.
IB programmes will play key role
The group expects to offer the International Baccalaureate programmes, starting with the PYP, Primary Years, and MYP, Middle Years, programmes.
As the children move up, the IB diploma programme for secondary students will be added.
IB programmes require authorization from the International Baccalaureate Organization, based in Geneva, often a lengthy process. Schools in more than 100 countries offer the IB programmes, widely considered to provide a top-level international education.
The management for the new school has long experience with the IB.
Gems’s curriculum head for Europe, Mel Curtis, headed the company’s Dubai school, an IB school, for several years. Principal Peverelli, is currently head of the International School of Paris, and she has worked closely with the International Baccalaureate’s primary years programme as a workshop leader.
Her current school has 700 students and 140 full time equivalent teaching posts.
The Gems Education company describes itself as “the largest operator of private schools in the world”, with more than 110,000 students, 10,000 staff and schools in 151 countries. It calls its model unique in the world “because it offers a broad range of curricula across a range of tuition fees making private education more accessible to the broader community”.
GWA Etoy web site, including contact form
Update, Thursday 17:00, articles in Le Temps (registration required), Fr